One of the most frequent comments I receive on my M/M historical romance novels is that readers are surprised at how little homophobia the characters encounter. The main character’s friends and family are, for the most part, accepting. Opposition and hatred are vague implications at best. The risks of being caught are only hinted. And my main characters always end up in a positive, healthy, happily-ever-after relationship.
The first thing to consider, when we’re talking about homophobia as it relates to M/M historicals, is that the type and flavour of homophobia would have been very different to what we encounter today. Homosexuality (and I will use this term throughout this post to include bisexuality, and with the understanding that “homosexuality” did not exist as either a term or an identity until the late 19th century) was less visible, and it wasn’t until the late Georgian era/Regency period that we start to see the development of a homosexual subculture (in the form of the “molly houses”). Most people knew about homosexuality to some degree (“I heard of a scandalous story that except as it is scandalous is not fit to report to a Lady, of the younger Mr Byng, whose name I think is Ned, they say he is to be prosecuted for some particular fondness of a Barber, but I don’t know what they mean, I am afraid to mention his name the Gentlemen laugh so much & the Ladies don’t seem quite ignorant of it.” Elizabeth Montague, 4 Sept 1736), but the matter legally still fell under the “buggery” laws, which at the time included such things as heterosexual oral sex and bestiality, and was more often associated in written sources to bestiality (there’s a particularly popular story about a lady and a baboon that appears frequently in Country Law texts of the 18th century). Even though buggery was theoretically still punishable by death, it was hardly ever prosecuted, on the count that it was very, very difficult to prove (unless caught in flagrante delicto by multiple witnesses of authority…) and most of the cases we do have are libel cases, which often back-fire on the accusers, as in the <a href=“https://books.google.com/books?id=vqRaAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA164&dq=buggery&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiGx834iPTKAhWMOSYKHXYvAgg4KBDoAQg1MAU#v=onepage&q=buggery&f=false”>George Gore case</a>. Until the organised homosexual subculture developed enough to provoke organised opposition (police raids), homosexuals living quietly weren’t at all that much risk for prosecution unless they had particularly litigious neighbours. People might gossip about them, and it’s hard to prove at exactly which point the term “confirmed bachelor” got its homosexual implications, but because people weren’t expecting it, they didn’t look for it, and it was easier for things to slip under the rug. Travellers at inns would often get put up in a shared bed with a same-sex stranger, just for the sake of cost efficiency. <A href=“https://books.google.com/books?id=HPleAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA1&dq=sodomy&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi15-yAjfTKAhWEQCYKHWdBANAQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=sodomy&f=false”>Here’s an actual look at an anti-sodomy pamphlet at the time</a>, which attributes homosexuality to liberal education, men not wearing proper high heels (“The lowheel d Pump is an Emblem of their low Spirits”) and the fashion of men kissing in public (doesn’t specify what intensity of kissing though does mention “slavering”).
A History of Happy Endings (or Lack Thereof)
Our culture has come to associate homosexuality with tragic endings, especially in period pieces, because for centuries that was all that was permissible to publish. The Hays Production Code in Hollywood spelled it out, that homosexual characters had to either “repent” (suicide) or be “punished” (dying any other way). The only implied homosexual characters we saw on screen either ended up converted to heterosexuality or, more often, dead. Publishing houses had similar, less formal, codes. Books including homosexual characters with happy endings simply couldn’t get published. The only surviving books I know of with happy endings written before 1970 are The Price of Salt (or, Carol), by Patricia Highsmith, and Maurice, by E. M. Forster. I very highly recommend both of them.
Even today, when gay marriage laws are changing around the globe, the homosexual characters in our books, movies, and television still end up dead or tragically parted at a far, far higher rate than their heterosexual contemporaries. People expect (and often seek) for their homosexual characters to suffer for their orientation, and then to come to a tragic end. The trope is called bury your gays, or dead gays for the straight gaze.
Why I Don’t Write Overt Homophobia
My books, by and large, do not include homophobia as anything more than a vague and distant threat or a moderate insecurity in a character’s identity. I make this choice partly because I’m writing happy-ending romance novels, and my books tend to consist of a high level of humour and fluff. I treat race the same way: I insist upon including persons of colour centrally in my English historical fiction, because they were there. They lived. They loved. They’re worthy of stories.
Our cultural consciousness and media is flooded with stories of homosexuality and how tragic it is, and a lot of the fiction that’s available on LGBT topics is overtly about Being Gay and How Hard It Is. It gets exhausting—heterosexual characters get to have adventures, to be a variety of different people and to have complex identities, but homosexual characters in mainstream media are so often centered around their homosexuality as if it is their most defining character trait and motivation.
My main characters are all inclined toward loving the members of their own gender, but their stories aren’t about that inclination. Their stories are about their hopes and dreams, their quirks, their adventures, and, most importantly, falling in love and living happily ever after. I want to tell the love stories that haven’t been told. And while I do write about characters with a wide variety of ways that they identify or deny their sexual orientation, it is never their most defining character trait, nor is their plot ever centered around homophobia. It’s my opinion that our culture has enough of the story of Being Gay and How Hard it Is. Even though my characters may often be gay (or bi, or simply not identify with a label because their era didn’t have one), and even though they may encounter some opposition and danger relating to that identity, my stories will never revolve around those issues. I have other kinds of stories to tell.